Jurassic Park, Congo, The Andromeda Strain – Michael Crichton has penned several best-selling staples of the thriller genre. Most of them are sci-fi works primed for blockbuster adaptation.
Airframe (1996) is a similar horse but a very different color. Crichton really stripped down the fiction in science fiction this time. Contrary to most of his best known novels, there’s no emerging theoretical technology here. It all has to do with planes – no vanishing or supersonic or submersible aircraft, just planes as the commercial industry knew them at the time of publication. Even the plot itself is one of Crichton’s least fictionalized, composited from a few real-life incidents.
In Airframe, Casey Singleton is a quality assurance VP for Norton Aircraft. One of their planes emergency lands at LAX with two dead and a few injured passengers. It’s Singleton’s job to find out why. The story has all the makings of a techno-thriller but is more of a techno-procedural, captivatingly meandering along through technical puzzles and diagnostics. When crafted by Michael Crichton, it’s these technicalities which actually do make for a good mystery.
Crichton had made a name for himself by the time he wrote Airframe. That’s a good thing, because otherwise the subject matter wouldn’t grab many readers outside of those already interested in aviation. It’s surprisingly a page turner though. The dense science matter is an easy read, much like Andy Weir’s 2011 The Martian, and even more pivotal than that of Tom Clancy stories (great as they are.)
Crichton illuminates a niche field, making it accessible to all readers, but the niche members may especially grin with familiarity at some of the industry stereotypes:
She didn’t think Teddy was right about the airframe cracking; she didn’t think he was foolish enough to go up in a plane that hadn’t been thoroughly checked. He had hung around every minute of the tests, during the structural work, the CET, because he knew in a few days he was going to have to fly it. Teddy wasn’t stupid.
Neither the protagonist nor the story are primarily concerned with women’s progress, but I did find a certain compelling strength in how Singleton carries herself. It’s similar to Pam Landy’s in the Bourne film series. She is one of the best at what she does and makes her work invaluable to the right outcome in a field mostly populated by men.
Pilots, A&Ps, techno-thriller fiends, and general readers all will find Airframe a refreshing gem and hard to put down. It’s workmanlike, meticulously researched, and as is everything Michael Crichton, it’s a great read.
They're engineers. Emotionally, they're all thirteen years old, stuck at the age just before boys stop playing with toys, because they’ve discovered girls. They’re all still playing with toys."